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(The Difficulty of) Looking at Climate Change
Posted on Oct 10, 2013
By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch
Climate change is taking hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa every year in complex ways whose causes and effects are difficult to follow. Forest fires, very likely enhanced by climate change, took the lives of 19 firefighters facing Arizona blazes amid record heat waves in July. Again, climate change generally wasn’t the headline on that story.
(For the record, climate change is clearly helping to produce many of the bigger, more destructive, more expensive, more frequent disasters of our time, but it is impossible to point to any one of them and say definitely, this one is climate change. It’s like trying to say which cancers in a contaminated area were caused by the contamination; you can’t, but what you can say is that the overall rise in cancer is connected.)
Not quite a year ago, a climate-change-related hurricane drowned people when superstorm Sandy hit a place that doesn’t usually experience major hurricane impact, let alone storm surges that submerge amusement parks, the New York City subway system, and the Jersey shore. In that disaster, 148 people died directly, nearly that many indirectly, losses far greater than from any terrorist incident in this country other than that great anomaly, 9/11. The weather has now become man-made violence, though no one thinks of it as terrorism, in part because there’s no smoking gun or bomb—unless you have the eyes to see and the data to look at, in which case the smokestacks of coal plants start to look gun-like and the hands of energy company CEOs and well-paid-off legislators begin to morph into those of bombers.
Even the civil war in Syria may be a climate-change war of sorts: over the past several years, the country has been hit by its worst drought in modern times. Climate and Security analyst Francesco Femia says, “Around 75 percent of [Syrian] farmers suffered total crop failure, so they moved into the cities. Farmers in the northeast lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. They all moved into urban areas— urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. But this massive displacement mostly wasn’t reported. So it wasn’t factoring into various security analyses. People assumed Syria was relatively stable compared to Egypt.”
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We like to think about morality and sex and the lives of people we’ve gotten to know in some fashion. We know how to do it. It’s on a distinctly human scale. It’s disturbing in a reassuring way. We fret about it and feel secure in doing so. Now, everything’s changed, and our imaginations need to keep pace with that change. What is human scale anyway? These days, after all, we split atoms and tinker with genes and can melt an ice sheet. We were designed to think about human-scale phenomena, and now that very phrase is almost as meaningless as old terms like “glacial,” which used to mean slow-moving and slow to change.
Nowadays glaciers are melting rapidly or disappearing entirely, and some—those in Greenland, for example—have gushing rivers of ice water eating through their base. If the whole vast Greenland ice sheet were to melt, it could raise global sea levels by 23 feet.
We tend to think about climate change as one or two or five things: polar ice, glaciers melting, sea-level rise, heat waves, maybe droughts. Now, however, we need to start adding everything else into the mix: the migration of tropical diseases, the proliferation of insect pests, crop failures and declining crop yields leading to widespread hunger and famine, desertification and flooded zones and water failures leading to mass population shifts, resource wars, and so many other things that have to do with the widest systems of life on Earth, affecting health, the global economy, food systems, water systems, and energy systems.
It is almost impossibly scary and painful to contemplate the radical decline and potential death of the oceans that cover 70% of the Earth’s surface and the dramatic decrease of plankton, which do more than any other type of organism to sequester carbon and produce oxygen—a giant forest in microscopic form breathing in what we produce, breathing out what we need, keeping the whole system going. If you want to read something really terrifying, take a look at the rise of the Age of Jellyfish in this review of Lisa-Ann Gershwin’s book Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. Maybe read it even if you don’t.
Only remember that like so much about climate change we used to imagine as a grim future, that future is increasingly here and now. In this case, in the form of millions or maybe billions of tons of jellyfish proliferating globally and devouring plankton, fish eggs, small fish, and bigger creatures in the sea we love, we know, we count on, we feed on, and now even clogging the water-intake pipes of nuclear power plants. In the form of seashells dissolving in acidic waters from the Pacific Northwest to the Antarctic Ocean. In the form of billions of pine-bark beetles massacring the forests of the American West, from Arizona to Alaska, one bite at a time.
It’s huge. I think about it, and I read about it, following blogs at Weather Underground, various climate websites, the emails of environmental groups, the tweets of people at 350.org, and bits and pieces of news on the subject that straggle into the mainstream and alternative media. Then I lose sight of it. I think about everything and anything else; I get caught up in old human-scale news that fits into my frameworks so much more easily. And then I remember, and regain my sense of proportion, or disproportion.
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